The Slack DM Problem
When this tool indicates poor team health
This isn’t a hit piece on Slack (or its competitors). When used well, it’s an essential tool for distributed teams. Tools are just tools, it’s how they’re used that matters. There’s one Slack usage that indicates a sign of bigger problems — DMs during meetings.
This kind of side conversation is one way I gauge team dysfunction. You’ve initiated or encountered a Slack DM from another participant in a meeting, right? I know it happens because I hear about it often and have been on the receiving end of these messages. Instead of addressing it openly, the conversation enters a private chat on Slack where opinions are shared more freely. We’re occupying the same time and space so we can’t blame schedule conflicts or workload. Making this choice indicates something is amiss.
Sometimes it’s an individual issue. Side chatter can be about personality or style disagreements. We think the other person's approach to the work or opinion is wrong but we don’t know how to do it with tact. Afraid our opinion might erupt into conflict, we avoid what we perceive to be a confrontation. We disagree with the direction but don’t know how to talk about it or if it’s even our place to bring it up.
Still, be wary of chalking this kind of side chatter as an individual issue. Sometimes it’s a personal issue. More often a flurry of Slack DMs during meetings is a sign team dynamics have turned sour. It might also be a symptom of a larger organizational issue.
What this can indicate when it becomes a common team behavior:
A low trust bank
Unclear ground rules
A culture of fear has set in
Lack of clarity on expectations
There’s a leadership void
A conflict avoidant culture
Gossip has become prevalent
A need to level up horizontal leadership skills
The team doesn’t feel safe having difficult conversations
A team that is still forming and unsure of the rules of engagement
A focus on getting the work done over how to get the work done
We’re working at the wrong level of abstraction
Informal power structures have seeped in
A collection of individuals rather a well-honed, interdependent team
Notice you’re doing this? Step back to think about what’s driving you to this behavior. Notice a pattern on the team? Look at the team dynamics and what might be influencing them to act this way.
Infrequent Slack DMs are normal. Start to worry when they turn into an underground network of information sharing. We can’t face what we’re not willing to bring to light. When these conversations stay in DMs, we'll never form a high-performing team. Remember, it’s not just what we accomplish together, how we experience it that matters too.
Until next time, be well.
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